The UN described the deal, designed to save the world from a global famine, as a ‘beacon of hope’ on the Black Sea
By James Kilner. 24 July 2022 •
It was supposed to be the deal that breathes life into Ukraine’s war-ravished economy and saves the world from a global famine. The UN described it as a “beacon of hope” on the Black Sea.
And it possibly is. But what if Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine triggered the global food shortage, turns out to be the biggest winner?
Analysts have said that the deal signed on Friday in Istanbul to lift the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports gives the Kremlin two important boosts. It will fill the Kremlin’s treasury with cash that it can use to fund its war and it also allows Russian officials to grandstand in Africa as the continent’s saviour.
“The export of grain and fertilisers will be an important revenue source for Putin’s war chest amid the looming EU oil embargo,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.
Western sanctions have not been imposed on Russian grain or fertilisers, which are seen as too important to world supplies to ban, but companies around the world have been reluctant to deal in them because they fear falling foul of the rules and are worried they may handle stolen Ukrainian products.
This reluctance has dented prices and sales volumes. Russia’s fertiliser sales are down by 24 per cent and grain sales by 10 per cent or so. By striking the deal, Russian grain becomes clean again and can be traded at near-market prices.
Mr Gabuev explained that the Kremlin had told European and US officials that there could be no deal unless they reassured shippers, insurers and bankers that they could deal in Russian grain and fertilisers.
“This was not a formal part of the Istanbul Process, but developed in parallel and has been a Russian precondition,” he said.
But it’s not just about the cash. Effectively at war with the West over its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin is desperate to build support elsewhere. Now it can frame itself as the kind-hearted ally that has saved Africa from the West’s selfish sanctions policies, a point that Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has wasted no time in making.
Less than two days after the grain deal was signed he was on a flight to Egypt, the start of a trip that also includes Ethiopia, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
One of his first meetings was with the Arab League in Cairo. Footage from the meeting showed diplomats from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries lining up to shake the towering Russian’s hand. There were smiles and warm words.
He wasn’t being greeted as the frontman of a pariah state but as a friend.
Russia already has strong economic, security and education ties with Africa and doesn’t have the colonial baggage that weighs down European countries. It also presents itself as a strong counterbalance to the US.
The Kremlin is also prepared to lend its brutal Wagner mercenaries to prop up some of the more dubious regimes on the continent, build energy projects and advise on how to discredit pro-Western democratic groups.
The importance that the Kremlin has placed on relations with Africa was highlighted in June when Mr Putin hosted Macky Sall, the president of Senegal and head of the African Union.
In an article published in newspapers in Africa before his visit, Mr Lavrov described the West as “bloody colonialists” intent on imposing their “unipolar world order”. By signing the grain deal, Mr Lavrov said that Russia was proving itself to be Africa’s true friend.
“Moscow will continue to pursue a peace-loving foreign policy and play a balancing role in international affairs,” he wrote.